If you’ve taken a long Air Canada flight in the past year, you’re sure to have seen ads to visit Newfoundland & Labrador before your movie/show starts. And if you’re like me, man did those ads work. Shots of rowboats bobbing on the water, puffins flapping their wings, green cliffs towering over ocean water, and Irish “tweedle music” (as I call it) playing in the background created a video montage that might as well have been named “Operation Suck Courtney In”. After one of those flights, I turned to Elliot and was like “I’m fascinated. We need to go to Newfoundland.” He couldn’t really argue because we went to Svalbard because of an article he read in an airline magazine. Newfoundland was my Svalbard.
For my fellow Americans who have zero concept of Canadian geography, the province of Newfoundland and Labrador is actually broken up into two separate areas. Newfoundland aka “The Rock” as it’s called by locals, is an island and home to the province’s largest city, St. John’s, while Labrador shares a border with Quebec. For the sake of my laziness though, I’ll just be using Newfoundland. Sorry, Labrador; you out.
For anyone who knows me, you know that I did plenty of research ahead of our trip, and when I did I learned that there was so much I didn’t know about the place. The first thing that stood out to me was how far east Newfoundland is. To give an example, it’s almost three hour flight from Toronto and only a four and a half hour flight to Ireland! Given that little tidbit, it should come as no surprise that Newfoundlanders have some serious BROGUES and even have their own style of Irish music that they developed. “But why would they still sound Irish? Wasn’t Canada brought together in 1867?” – You, but probably not because how many Americans know the Canada confederation year? That, however, brings me to my next nugget o’ learning: Newfoundland wasn’t part of Canada until 1949; previously it was its own self-regulating government (still part of the British commonwealth) that went through economic ups and downs following WWI until finally making a bid to be part of Canada following WWII.
Newfoundland is famous for its “iceberg season”, when every end of April-beginning of June you can see icebergs that broke off the coast of Greenland floating past the coastline. Excited at the prospect of yelling, “Iceberg straight a’ead!”, we booked our trip for the three day weekend in the middle of May. Even as we landed in St. John’s, El could see icebergs off the coast of the city; little did we know that we conveniently booked our trip during the best iceberg season in twenty years. We were due for some good weather luck after our Cairns visit, so I’ll take it.
Once off the plane, we could have sworn we had touched down in a different country entirely with the thickness of the accents around us. We could barely understand even the driver of the Thrifty rental car shuttle, and I had to pretend I knew what the hell he was saying with some generic, “Oh yeah?” and “Oh wow” commentary.
Our weekend plan was to drive the five hours north to Twillingate, the best place in the province to see the icebergs, and make our way along the eastern coast back to St. John’s. Contrary to how it might look on a map, Newfoundland is BIG, and there aren’t a whole lot of highways across the island. El was saying that drivers at MB have to drive the perimeter of the island to make their deliveries, basically amounting to an 18 hour drive every week. We had originally looked at going to the original Viking settlement, L’anse Aux Meadows, but it’s an 11 hour drive from St. John’s and basically has nothing around it. As cool as it would have been for me to pretend to be a Viking opera singer, we didn’t have enough time to commit to that drive. Besides, we had icebergs to see!
The drive to Twillingate, on the Twillingate islands along the northern coast, reminded us a lot of Nova Scotia with all the lakes and evergreen trees. The closer we got to Twillingate, the more prevalent the icebergs and pack ice became in the little inlets and bays. Even though it was cloudy, the colors of the icebergs against the green cliffs were pretty spectacular. Throw in the colorful houses of the towns, and you’ve got yourself a goddamn Bob Ross painting. We noticed that the houses all had colorful wooden hexagonal trash containers at the start of their driveways. We drove along the Trans-Canadian Highway through Gander of Come from Away fame until we made it to Twillingate. Almost identical to Peggy’s Cove, but with a shit ton more icebergs, Twillingate is a small town made up of lots of seafood spots and colorful B&Bs along the water. Our own cozy cottage was right by Crow’s Head lighthouse and gave us a pretty great view of icebergs floating in the bay. Not a bad life.
We made our way into town, past the sign that advertised the number of moose accidents in 2018 (8) and 2019 (1), and picked up some beer made out of iceberg water (called, shockingly, Iceberg Beer) made by Quidi Vidi Brewery before stopping at the local craft brewery, Split Rock. For being from a really tiny town, their beer was GOOD. Add in the townies and accents, and you’ve got yourself the makings for a pretty epic spot. We had a meal of fried glory overlooking the water at The Captain’s Pub and made our way back home because everything closed early. We capped off our night with an iceberg beer while looking out the window AT icebergs and read about the history behind the cottage’s namesake, Humphrey Gilbert. History, ye be stranger than fiction.
The next morning we broke off and ate a piece of an iceberg that was just off a beach that was a sparkling blue due to the shells that littered it. Even though it was probably the cleanest water I’d ever have, I still had my mother’s voice shrieking “A bird probably crapped on there!” in my head. Hellloooooo, avian bird flu!
We took the coastal route down to our next stop, Bonavista, and the scenery reminded me a lot of our drive along the western Irish coast. Besides the occasional small sea town, our view was restricted to brush and the occasional camper parked in the middle of nowhere. There weren’t any rest stops for miles at a time, so we had to pull over so I could pee behind a tree. Despite there not being a car around us for a good ten minutes, of course one happened to drive by and honk their horn right as I was doing my business. Luck of the Irish, my ass. Literally.
As we neared Bonavista, Elliot suddenly slammed on the brakes and pointed to the road in front of us. There, like a Canadian version of the classic “Why did the chicken cross the road?’ joke, were two female moose just sauntering their way across the highway. Five seconds earlier or later, and we would have missed them. Luck of the Irish: back. Besides a few stops to take pictures of the ocean views and icebergs, we got to our B&B, Butler’s by the Sea, in the early afternoon. Bonavista is a typical coastal Atlantic fishing town, filled with brightly colored houses that overlook some seriously blue water. The proprietor Herb, a grizzly grandpa type with tattoos and a strong brogue, greeted us and showed us to our cute loft room. The house itself was built in 1915 by two sailor brothers and was located cliffside with an unreal view. The sun came out right as we parked, and the blue of the water, the white and turquoise of the icebergs, and the red in the rocks made for one of those “Is this place real?” moments.
We drove out to the Bonavista lighthouse, which not only had great views of the icebergs but some of the most interesting cliffside rock patterns and colors I’ve seen. Not to be a huge nerd, but it looked like Dragonstone from Thrones. ::cue someone yelling ‘NERD!’ from somewhere in the back::. Our next stop was Elliston, the town with the distinguished title of “root cellar capital of the world” but more importantly, home to the world’s largest puffin colony. The lady at the quick mart where we bought a cheap magnet informed us that the puffins had just arrived the day before and that they can be really friendly and come right out to you. They make their home on two islands that looked similar to the ones off the Cliffs of Moher. Unfortunately for us, they were hiding when we got there, but considering we saw some when we were in Ireland we didn’t feel too cheated. We topped off our truly coastal Atlantic day with some of the freshest cod fish ‘n chips we’ve ever had at The Skipper’s in Bonavista. Much like several places we’d visited in Newfoundland, the building had a story behind it, and we learned all about how a man named JR Smythe shaped the industry of the area.
We got an early start to St. John’s the next morning, and because we couldn’t stay for breakfast, Herb sent us off with some freshly baked cranberry muffins. The warmth and the hospitality of the people of Newfoundland really can’t be stated enough; it’s truly a welcoming place. Before we hit St. John’s, we stopped and did the well-maintained and famous Skerwink Trail. We did the majority of the hour cliffside hike before the fog rolled in and got some pretty incredible pics of the water and rock formations along it. We were too early for the whale season (thank God), but they come every June/July because capelin lay their eggs on the beaches alongside the trail’s cliffs. <Insert fish out of water joke here>
St. John’s is almost a three hour drive from the trail, and the drive was dotted with cars pulled over on the side of the road to fish at the numerous little lakes along the “highway”. St. John’s is the largest city in Newfoundland and the easternmost city in North America, with the population of the greater area around 200K, a large percentage of whom work for ExxonMobil Canada whose HQ is located here. The first thing we noticed was how the brightly painted row houses and buildings made the city so vibrant. After lunch at Hungry Heart, a cafe with an incredible backstory, we decided to make our way to Signal Hill while the sun was still out. It was a good thing we did because the rest of the afternoon and following day was straight up FOG, and we would have missed out on one hell of a scene.
Signal Hill overlooks the water and city and is named so because it was where the first Trans-Atlantic wireless signal from Marconi was received. The blueness of the water and sky was like something out of a painting, and then a bald eagle flew overhead and made the whole situation almost laughable because it seemed so idyllic. Only about 300 of the 40,000 icebergs that break off Greenland make it as far south as St. John’s, but we could see some pretty big ones right off the coast. The info boards on top of the hill gave the history of the area, the namesake behind the hill’s Cabot Tower (John Cabot was the first European to set foot in Newfoundland), and how the city being so far east made it vulnerable during the world wars. The more we learned about Newfoundland, the more intrigued we became.
Our Airbnb was right downtown and in walking distance of George Street, a pedestrian street with nothing but bars and clubs and what seemed like the world’s largest collection of ATMs. We checked out the famous Jellybean Row, which was kind of underwhelming when we compared it to all the other colorful buildings in the city. We also visited Bannerman Brewing, an awesome space with delicious beer and an even better sailboat logo before making our next stop the Yellow Belly Public House, a nautical English pub feeling spot in a warehouse built in the 1750s.
Now, you can’t come to Newfoundland without getting “screeched in” (no, not that Screech), and both my coworker and El’s friend who’s from there recommended Christian’s Pub as THE place to do it. When you read the description of the screeched in ceremony online: “Do a shot of rum, speak some gibberish, eat fried bologna, and kiss a frozen cod”, your first reaction is likely, “…the f**k?” I know mine was. But as I’ve said before, El and I are “When in Rome!” kinda travelers, so you know we weren’t going to pass up this opportunity. Because Christian’s is so popular, you have to sign up in person for a screeched in time slot. Ours was in an hour, so we listened to some traditional Newfoundland live music and had the Newfoundland-famous Black Horse Lager at the nearby Shamrock City to pass the time. We were only in N&L for three days but still managed to tick pretty much all the ‘must do’ boxes. #TimeManagementBitches
Back at Christian’s for our 6pm “ceremony”, all of us crowded around the cozy bar where our master of ceremonies, aka the bartender nicknamed Lukey, got our attention by hitting the ceiling with the handle end of an oar. There were about twenty of us, but he still managed to learn everyone’s name after only hearing them once and kept using them throughout the ceremony. That is some epic customer service, my friend. Despite some Germans trying to get on the action without signing up (damn you, Roberto, Sven, & Sebastian!), Lukey was still warm and welcomed everyone to become an honorary Newfoundlander. He put on a fisherman’s rain hat, played a video of a roaring fire on the tv, and started pouring out rum shots for everyone. With Newfoundland music playing overhead, Lukey passed out bites of bologna that he had lit on fire just seconds before. He then passed around the shots of Newfoundland Screech rum and told the story of how the Jamaican-made rum got its name: its 80 proof makes people screech after drinking it. And damn, can I see why. We did the shot, and it was so strong that I immediately felt like I had grown chest hair.
Despite my burning esophagus, I managed to repeat after Lukey as he taught us some NL phrases like “Ay-buy = Agree”. He then pulled a frozen cod, caught by his daughter, out of the cooler and passed it around for us to kiss. After everyone had kissed the cod, even those intruding Germans, we all got certificates commemorating us being honorary Newfoundlanders and everyone cheered. Yeah, getting screeched in may be a tourist trap, but the small crowd and Lukey’s enthusiasm made it feel genuine and a hell of a lot of fun. Pumped up on our honorary citizenship, we made the rounds on George Street the rest of the night…and as such needed a hangover brunch the next morning. Womp womp.
Newfoundland was everything I’d imagined it to be: gorgeous sea views, colorful houses, fresh fish ‘n chips, and people so friendly and welcoming you’d almost think them disingenuous. Had we not moved to Toronto, I don’t think we would have thought to visit this Atlantic gem. That’s part of the reason why I’m writing this post: to spread the word about how great Newfoundland is and encourage people to experience the icebergs, culture, and yes, getting screeched in. The Rock’s a pretty special place, and once you experience it, I think you’ll ay-buy…
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